An American Pope may be an idea whose time has finally come.
The Papacy is the dominant symbol of the continuity, consistency and resiliency of the institution of the Catholic Church. The Pope is the chief spokesperson for the Church and as such he impacts the global relevance of the faith. He possesses perhaps the most prominent platform next to the American Presidency on the world stage.
I had the great privilege of meeting John Paul II at the Vatican with President Bush in 2002, and Benedict XVI upon his visit to New York in 2008. In both instances, I had the opportunity to observe not only these great men but how people of all faiths responded to the institution of the Papacy. There is a reason no religious or secular institution has survived humanity’s turmoil intact like the Papacy.
This next Conclave comes under extraordinary circumstances. It will likely result in the coronation of a younger Pope who could shepherd the Church for decades to come. The decision of the 115 Cardinal Electors is a weighty one. They come together at a time of crisis not only for the Church of Rome but the mission of all Christian churches as competing forces in the world’s most influential nations threaten to further weaken communities of faith.
The concept of an American Pope is often dismissed as impractical and undesirable for a whole host of reasons. There are the concerns about U.S. government influence, and the handling of the sexual abuse scandal here among others. Times have changed, however, and the Church in the U.S. finds itself at odds with the government on a range of issues and the sex abuse scandal is no longer viewed as just an American problem. An American Pope may be an idea whose time has finally come. Here are four reasons, in no particular order, why electing an American Cardinal to the Papacy makes sense for the future of the Church.
Fundraising Capability – The United States isn’t just the center of the media and financial world. It’s also the center of the philanthropic world. The Vatican relies heavily from the support of the American faithful to fund its operations and its global network of charitable organizations. It’s substantial income from its investments and museums aside, Catholics in the United States consistently represent the largest contributors to the Holy See amounting to nearly one-third of its total charitable collections which brought in just under $70 million in 2011. That figure is down from more than $82 million in 2009.
An American Pope would bring enormous fundraising ability as an energized and already generous American faithful would undoubtedly increase their pledges to the Vatican and other Church institutions. As of the last Vatican financial report from mid-2012, the Holy See is in the red. The Church may be growing more rapidly in Africa and South America, but both the faithful and religious institutions in those nations simply do not have access to significant resources. With an American Pope, a new era for the Church’s charities would be realized through tapping the pride and good will of the most generous nation on Earth.
The Rise of Secularism and Islam in Europe– There is a painful fact that the Church must acknowledge. Centuries of Italian Popes, and most recently Polish and German pontiffs, have done little to slow the march of two powerful competitors to Catholicism’s dominance in Europe. Secularism in Europe is on the rise. Today Europe is the only continent where the number of Catholics and members of the priesthood is declining. Even in Italy, long the bedrock of the Church in Europe, identification with Catholicism is diminishing.
Europe isn’t a lost cause by a long shot, but another European Pope isn’t going to solve the problem. The Migration Policy Institute predicts that the Muslim faith will account for more than 20 percent of the EU population by 2050. Another forecast suggests that Muslims could outnumber non-Muslims in France and perhaps in all of Western Europe by mid-century. Austria was once 90 percent Catholic but Islam could be the majority religion there under the age of 15 by 2050.
Secular influences in the media and government in the United States are also becoming more brazen in their attacks on religion. But from a strategic standpoint, the Church needs to continue to rehabilitate the importance of faith in Europe, but should be looking to reinforce its already stronger position in the United States.
Promoting Religious Freedom – America’s first freedom is the Freedom of Religion. Religious freedom is the cornerstone of all the other freedoms that are endowed by God to His people. Without the freedom to worship God as we see fit (or not at all) without fear of oppression or punishment, all other personal liberties become that much more tenuous.
An American Pope is uniquely positioned to drive a message of freedom on behalf of the Church and all people of faith around the world. The message of religious freedom delivered by the Holy See is one that has universal importance, particular in regions where governments and religious extremists imperil Christians or political dissenters. The American Church’s present fight against intrusions on the rights of conscience over Obamacare’s mandates also gives an American Pope increased credibility in articulating the importance of standing up to secular institutions and other forces that seek to reduce freedom.
The Power of Communication – The Pope must be able to communicate effectively. American prelates have a natural ability to communicate to massive audiences that are critical to the growth of the Church. A number of American Cardinals, particularly the new crop of bishops appointed by Benedict XVI in the last several years, understand how to communicate in the world of 24 hour news and digital media. They speak the world’s second most used language, English and many also speak Spanish, the third most spoken language on Earth.
An American Pope would understand that being the leader of the Church isn’t just about being a great teacher and theologian, like Benedict, but also is largely about playing to the crowd, like John Paul II. An American Pope would be able to inspire a revival within the Church of the Americas by reinforcing Catholicism in the U.S. and in maintaining its present growth in Latin America.